When Mitt Romney was Massachusetts governor, he said, he was given “binders… (Scott Eells, Bloomberg )
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comment about "binders full of women" has gone viral on the Internet, spawning jokes, mash-ups and musical memes.
But women's rights advocates said the comment nevertheless sheds light on the serious issue of workplace inequality.
Romney's comment in Tuesday night's town hall event came during a discussion of gender inequality on the job — and that dialogue was the first time the issue has been broached in a major way as a key election issue, advocates said.
PHOTOS: Second presidential debate
Women still earn less than men even when working in the same jobs, the advocates noted. They constitute a paltry portion of corporate executives. And although more research is starting to suggest that a woman onboard is better for business, the glass ceiling remains largely intact.
"I'm very glad that it's been brought to the fore," said Betty Spence, president of the nonpartisan National Assn. for Female Executives. "There hasn't been a lot of talk about women in the election except for the occasional lip service."
Romney's remark came in response to a question about women making 72% of what men earn. Obama answered the question by talking about signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law.
Describing his search as a Massachusetts governor for qualified women for his cabinet, Romney said: "I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women."
Equal-opportunity advocates said Romney's comment was telling. Most executives have few women in their inner circles, making it unlikely that they'll hire more, said lawyer Cindy Kushner, founder of the Women Executive Leadership nonprofit group.
"Companies continue to look for candidates within their own networks, and if they're predominantly male, that's who they'll hire," Kushner said. "There's less of a visible pool of women. The same ones get recycled over and over."
Outside the political arena, the issue has gained plenty of traction this year.
An article in the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor, went viral when it argued that women "can't have it all" by trying to juggle both motherhood and demanding professional careers.
Yahoo Inc.'s new chief executive, Marissa Mayer, encountered praise and concern — and plenty of publicity — when she stepped into the role in July while pregnant. Mayer's hiring made her the 20th female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, a record number as of July.
Other female chief executives at Fortune 500 companies are Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Meg Whitman, Pepsico Inc.'s Indra Nooyi, Avon Products Inc.'s Sheri McCoy and Xerox Corp.'s Ursula Burns.
Still, women continue to make 20% to 30% less than men on average, Spence said.
Worse, according to research group Catalyst, Latino women earn nearly 40% less than men. In addition, less than 60% of working-age women were in the labor force last year, compared with more than 70% of men, according to the group, which focuses on the role of women in business.
"Equal pay is not just a women's issue, it's a family issue," Spence said, echoing President Obama's statement from the Tuesday night debate.
"Women are becoming the primary breadwinners in many cases and are likely to outlive their spouses," she said. "With less to live on, less to save and less to retire on, they're not going to be able to have the money to survive."
The dearth of women in top positions may also affect balance sheets, according to several recent studies.
A report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that public companies with female board members delivered higher average returns on equity, better share price performance and more growth.
A Dow Jones study suggested that venture-backed firms with top female executives have a better chance of success than rivals with only men at the helm.
Women-led start-ups also are more likely to be profitable, sell for a higher price or go public, the study found.
And, with women responsible for some 85% of consumer spending, female decision-makers can help craft an especially effective sales strategy, experts said.
But Americans still prefer a male boss than a female one, although the margin is the slimmest it's ever been, according to pollster Gallup.
In California, female business executives still have a long way to go before reaching parity with fellow male honchos, according to UC Davis. The share of female leaders at the 400 largest public companies in the state is growing at just 0.2% a year.